Devil Music Perform Live Soundtrack to Chinese Classic ‘Red Heroine’ (Boston Globe 3.2.12)

Posted on February 10, 2013


Deep down in a brick and concrete basement in Jamaica Plain, the three members of the Devil Music Ensemble whittle away at pieces of music that swerve in mood from warlike to courtly to comical. Brendon Wood plays plucky notes on an electric guitar while Tim Nylander clip-clops on woodblocks. Meanwhile, Jonah Rapino bows a rubbery-sounding two-stringed violin – the traditional Chinese erhu.

As they play, a smoky black-and-white film flickers on one wall, where an old warlord in royal dress inspects frightened lineups of women for a potential concubine. The music plays along with sinister undertones. A drooping guitar string mimics a slide whistle effect when one character climbs down a rope to escape from a high tower window.

It’s one of a handful of last-minute rehearsals the group has to create an original soundtrack to a rare silent kung-fu and wuxia film, 1929’s “Red Heroine.’’ Devil Music first brought the film to the United States four years ago when they performed it at Chinatown’s outdoor “Films at the Gate’’ series; but this month, they accompany the film on its most important voyage yet – the one back home to China, for the Jue Festival of Art in Beijing and Shanghai. Boston audiences will get a warm-up concert next Saturday at MassArt’s Pozen Center.

“It’s a dream come true,’’ says Rapino. “It’s an amazing film and still seems weirdly shocking and up-to-date. The hard part was to just figure out how to really accompany it.’’

Devil Music is a group uniquely equipped for the odd task of deconstructing this rediscovered classic. The trio is propelled by the members’ evolving musical tastes, which have never sat still for too long (Rapino and Wood also play in the renowned Ethio-pop group Debo Band). They built a reputation as a psychedelic pickup band that blasted through improv rock sets and versions of Terry Riley’s minimalist benchmark, “In C.’’ They often played with films running in the background. “It was just eye candy,’’ says Wood. “It was something for people to look at while we freaked out.’’

In 2004, they were invited to perform live accompaniment to the silent surrealist horror classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’’ at a film festival at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. From there, a distinguished career has emerged as they’ve carefully assembled more soundtracks to films like Clifford S. Elfelt’s “Big Stakes,’’ F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror,’’ and John Barrymore’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’’

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A scene from “Red Heroine.”

The road to “Red Heroine’’ wasn’t easy. The group had heard echoes of the film through word of mouth as it first received attention as part of an archival series put together by UCLA, but prints were nearly impossible to come by. One month later, the group racked up nearly $200 in phone bills for a few unsuccessful phone calls and faxes to Beijing. It was a connection with Boston’s Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC), which organizes the “Films at the Gate’’ series, that finally set the wheels in motion.

The film arrived on time and the group was able to spend three months composing the score, a task which represented Devil Music’s most in-depth exploration yet.

“We did a lot of listening to traditional Chinese folk music and Chinese opera,’’ says Rapino. “We watched a lot of kung-fu films from the ’70s to hear their soundtracks, just to try to get inspiration from those worlds too.’’ The guitar playing emulates the Chinese lute (known as the pipa), and the drum set is stocked with bells, lashes, and gongs. “We’re not just going to play rock ’n’ roll improvisation to a Chinese film,’’ he says.

The show in Chinatown was a smash, with the audience spilling into the streets and hanging out apartment windows (“One of the best shows we’ve ever played,’’ says Rapino). They took it on the road across the US and Europe in 2008 and 2009. The ultimate triumph comes this year, though, when they get themselves over to China to present the film to many Chinese fans who’ve never seen the film, and whose cultural ties now extend strongly to these Boston musicians. Through their time with the film, they’ve developed an incredible connection to the work.

“The final goal was to figure out how to really keep our sound but also do the film justice,’’ says Wood. “It really opened up this way for us to dig into this music from another part of the world.’’


Original article at the Boston Globe here.